A stitch in time

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Punjab House started life dressing the British military and navy in Hong Kong in 1889. Their travelling tailors will be in Ottawa Dec. 12-14 at the Westin Hotel. (Photo: Deeson & Deeson)

When it comes to custom-made suits, the style-savvy know you have to invest to get the best. But an army of travelling tailors from Hong Kong and London have, over the years, introduced Canada to short-term tailors.

These businesses take their silks, cottons and tweeds on the road, set up shop for a few days in hotels around the world and offer handmade suits at substantially lower prices than their Canadian counterparts. It may not sound like the most lucrative business model, but more and more of these tailors are successful nomads in the world of “bespoke,” which refers to exclusive handmade custom clothing.

“The economy is still pretty strong in Canada,” says Arshad Mahmood, company director of London-based Punjab House.

“Travelling is definitely worth it for us. If your product is good, word of mouth can be like a fire.” Constant travel could cost enough to put a tailor out of business, and Mahmood says the itinerant industry wouldn’t work for Punjab House and its sister company Apsley if it didn’t have a 10,000 regular customers in Canada. Mahmood is the great grandson of the founders, who began the company in 1889.

“There’s huge risk in having a business that travels,” he says. “Expenses are very high travelling with a complete team.”

The allure is the price point, but these merchants are more Savile Row than Canal Street.

The most memorable suit Mahmood has ever made is a James Bond-worthy confection, stitched with 18-karat gold thread and topped with diamond buttons that retailed for more than $111,000 Canadian. It is now displayed in Apsley’s storefront in Pall Mall, London and was the world’s most expensive suit when it was purchased by a South African oil tycoon in 2009.

Although a suit decorated with a precious metal and gems is probably not a priority for most 20-somethings, bespoke is no longer exclusively a white-collar commodity — tailors are noting a much younger demographic of customers with modernized tastes. The travelling tailors who offer better deals than a local tailor are the happy medium between investing and insufficient-funds.

“The up-and-comers are willing to spend a little extra on two or three really nice suits,” says Domenic Morgante of Morgante Menswear, a high-end retailer in the Sparks Street Mall that specializes in made-to-measure suits.

Off-the-rack ensembles aren’t well-suited to style’s culture of customization, and young professionals are increasingly opting for bespoke pieces over a size-medium from Zara.

Marketing a moving business to international young professionals requires an active and interactive online presence — customers need to know when the tailor will be in their city, and how to get in touch with a company without a local phone number. Regular updates on the garment’s status and an easy-to-contact staff add to its credibility.

Punjab House tailors, who are to set up shop at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa Dec. 12-14, have generated buzz through an haute-monde clientele and record-setting endeavours. Its team of 15 tailors set another the Guinness World Record for the fastest suit ever made, which was constructed in six hours.

Social media profiles are peppered with photos of Mahmood, sporting a trademark tape measure draped around his shoulders, shaking hands with presidents, athletes and CEOs.

One devotee is James Chan, a senior manager for Ernst & Young in Toronto. He was introduced to Apsley Tailors in Hong Kong and has been a client of theirs since 2007.

“I’m a tough fit off the rack — makes it hard to get a shirt that isn’t too billowy on the sides,” says Chan. “It’s an investment for me. For pop-up tailors, I found them to be very professional.”

For his first suit, he was provided a tracking number to follow the suit until it arrived at his door, was regularly updated with photos and was given a local tailor to contact should there be any minor alterations. While some Ottawa-area customers have not had Chan’s luck, and online style forums feature posts from men warning against buying a suit from a travelling tailor (one says it was impossible to track down his purchase once he had paid for it, and another had to have his altered three times before it was the right fit), the majority seem satisfied.

But there is speculation the suits these travelling enterprises advertise may just be made-to measure, a process in which the suit is cut from a pattern and adjustments are made to make it fit the customer. Are the suits actually handmade, one-of-a-kind?

“Based on what the average prices are, no,” says Morgante. “ ‘Bespoke’ is a word that gets thrown around by people who don’t know what it means. It’s is a very exclusive, expensive thing.”

Morgante’s made-to-measure suits range in price from $895 to $2,250 and take up to three weeks to create. Punjab House’s bespoke suits start at about $500 and are made in the same time span.

Bespoke or not, pop-up tailors are gaining momentum — loyal customers keep coming back for more discounted wares and the tailors continue to breeze through Canadian cities at least three times a year.

Other businesses have picked up on the trend, like Vancouver-based online retailer Indochino, which took its pop-up cross-country earlier this year.

As the competition grows, there’s one thing the tailors agree upon — there will always be a market for the perfectly tailored classic suit.

“You feel great in the suit because it’s made for you,” says Mahmood. “It’s all about enjoying it.”

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